By ALAN FRAM, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — House Speaker Paul Ryan on Wednesday bemoaned America’s “broken politics” in a farewell speech in which he called Washington’s failure to overhaul costly federal benefit programs “our greatest unfinished business.”
“Our complex problems are absolutely solvable,” Ryan said at the Library of Congress, across the street from the U.S. Capitol, where he’s served two decades in the House. “That is to say our problems are solvable if our politics will allow it.”
The Wisconsin Republican’s half-hour address, which touted achievements and conceded shortcomings, came as he closed out his three-year run as speaker. Despite GOP control of the White House and Congress since early 2017, it’s been an unusually tumultuous period, marked by the erratic decision-making and verbal outbursts of President Donald Trump and Republican divisions over priorities such as health care and immigration.
Ryan’s departure comes six weeks after Democrats captured the House on election day. Their triumph followed a campaign in which they criticized Republicans for trying to repeal and replace former President Barack Obama’s popular health-care law.
Under Ryan, Congress approved the biggest tax cuts seen in decades, boosted spending on defense and rolled back Obama regulations meant to protect clean air and water. But annual federal deficits are surging, Medicare and other expensive entitlement programs are expanding and Republicans’ attempt to scuttle Obama’s health-care statute crashed.
In Ryan’s waning days as House speaker, Congress was trying to avoid a partial government shutdown as Trump clashed with Democrats over his demand for taxpayer money to build a wall along the border with Mexico.
Ryan said the GOP’s attempts at repealing and rewriting Obama’s health-care law, although failing so far, have sowed the seeds of change. He said the party’s fruitless attempts to revamp immigration laws — both the House and Senate rejected bills put forward for that purpose — came closer to reaching lawmakers’ goals than people realize.
“We have taken on some of the biggest challenges of our time, and we’ve made a great and lasting difference in the trajectory of this country,” he said.
Yet he also called attention to recent failures.
Ryan, 48, acknowledged never achieving two longtime dreams — reining in spending by the government’s huge entitlement programs and controlling the enormous and growing national debt.
Thanks partly to the 10-year, $1.5 trillion tax cut Republicans enacted last year, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates the country will have a record $12.4 trillion accumulated federal deficit in the coming decade.
“I acknowledge plainly that my ambitions for entitlement reform have outpaced the political reality, and I consider this our greatest unfinished business,” he said.
“Ultimately, solving this problem will require a greater degree of political will than exists today,” Ryan added.
Ryan was elected to Congress in 1998, quickly becoming a leader among Republicans who were trying to reduce the size of the federal government. As House Budget Committee chairman, he wrote spending plans that envisioned squeezing savings from popular benefit programs like Medicare and eliminating deficits — reductions Congress never actually enacted.
He was Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate in 2012 and became speaker in 2015 after conservative unrest prompted the abrupt resignation of his predecessor, John Boehner, R-Ohio. Ryan announced last April that he would not seek re-election to the House, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family.
Ryan never explicitly mentioned Trump in his remarks but did talk about acrimony in politics.
“All of this gets amplified by technology, with an incentive structure that preys on people’s fears, and algorithms that play on anger,” he said. “Outrage has become a brand.”
He asked why politics has become so divisive, then answered his own question, saying, “This kind of politics starts from a place of outrage and seeks to tear us down from there.”
On immigration, Ryan said no matter how the fight over the proposed border wall is resolved, “The system will still be in need of serious reform. And no less than our full potential as a nation here is at stake.”
In a departure from Trump’s frequent anti-immigrant speeches, Ryan said the proposed remedy should include not just border security but also ways to help immigrants in the U.S. illegally stay “and be a part of our American fabric.” He said whatever policy is adopted should help “the undocumented population,” a group estimated at around 11 million people.
He said arriving at a proper remedy would take “some of the venom out of our discourse.”
Ryan for years was a quiet force for broad immigration overhauls that many conservatives opposed as going too far in offering citizenship to immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally. As speaker, he couldn’t unify Republicans behind one approach.
On foreign policy, Ryan called for “committing to the pillars of international relations,” showing a contrast to Trump’s attacks on NATO and withdrawal from some organizations. America must lead “not with bluster but with steady, principled action,” he said.
Ryan barely discussed the tax reductions the GOP adopted last year. Ryan has said he considers those reductions to be perhaps his most significant accomplishment. He cited that bill’s tax breaks for investors in low-income communities and called on Republicans not to let work to ease poverty “drift from your consciousness.”